Mark Terry

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Me & Stephen Parrish Talk Book Marketing

April 30, 2010
My friend Stephen Parrish’s first novel, THE TAVERNIER STONES, has hit the shelves and I encourage you to rush out to your favorite bookstore, online or bricks-and-mortar, and buy yourself a copy. It ain’t for nothin’ that I’m quoted on the back as saying, Relentlessly fascinating, Stephen Parrish’s Tavernier Stones is reminiscent of Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol ... It’s one hell of a good time.

Then, once you get the book, read it and pop on over to and start Stephen’s online treasure hunt to win a real one-carat diamond. Which brings us to today’s post, which is a lengthy conversation Stephen and I had online about book promotion, particularly as it relates to book signings. Stephen’s convinced (as am I) that online promotion is more effective and efficient than book signings (particularly for Stephen, who lives in Germany). Here we go:

Mark: I tell my wife that book signings are Writers Penance. It's something we do for the sins of enjoying ourselves writing. A friend of mine recently said to me, "But I thought you said book signings don't work. Why are you doing so many?" To which I said, "It makes my publisher happy." I think there are some rationale for doing them, but we'll get to that. What do you think?

Steve: I think it's sales that make the publisher happy, not spinning wheels. Given a choice between an author who sells and doesn't do signings, and an author who doesn't sell but pounds ground, bless his heart, which do you think the publisher is going to contract for a follow-on book?

I have to admit, right from the start, I'm so new in this business that I haven't done a single signing. But I've been listening for years to reports by writer friends, including you, and as I plan my promotional activities during the next several months, I question why I should consider putting book signings on the agenda at all.

Mark: Well, let's talk about, from my point of view, the reasons for doing book signings. First of all, it's not usually about selling books. Generally speaking, when you're starting out, nobody's going out of their way to visit a bookstore to buy your book and meet you. A few in the store, maybe some friends and relatives, and then those folks who just like to meet authors or who have a particular penchant for new authors. The thing I hear most is that you're building a relationship with booksellers. I have a somewhat skeptical attitude about this. For independent bookstores, yeah, that's probably true (and they're disappearing daily). I don't have many indie bookstores near me, so it's never been much of an issue. For the chain stores, Borders, B&N, etc., I'm not convinced this is a big deal. The stores have too much turnover in terms of their employees for most of them to get to know you one way or the other; they move too many books to be too dazzled by an author who will be lucky to move a handful or more at a signing event. Much of the events for both are handled through corporate headquarters, although that policy's shifted a bit for Borders. The last few years Borders events were handled almost strictly by a regional events coordinator and if that person hadn't heard of you, you were pretty much locked out of 20 or 30 stores in a region. There's apparently been a partial shift back toward individual store events, but I had the unusual experience of the event coordinator at a Borders I signed at telling me he checked out my Amazon ranking before he agreed to host my signing. (He'd probably get fired for that, wouldn't you think?)

So, having pointed out the limitations, what are the pluses? In order to get a book placed on a central table at the front of the store or somewhere else prominent, publishers need to pay for that real estate (co-op) and it costs thousands of dollars. So most don't unless you're making the publisher millions of dollars. But by doing a signing and autographing stock, it gives the stores themselves an incentive to put your books out on those front tables with an AUTOGRAPHED COPY sticker on them, which draws some attention to the book. It used to be that bookstores couldn't return signed copies, thus forcing them to actually try and sell them, but those days are over. Who of us hasn't bought autographed remainders? If the stores put out a newsletter and put an ad on their website or sometimes even in the local newspapers, that's good marketing for you. One of the stores I signed at recently had a big poster made up with both me and my book cover on it and put it in the window of the store for a good week prior to the signing. I couldn't possibly pay for that kind of advertising, but I got it essentially for free. Sometimes local media will pay more attention to you because you're doing signings and that can lead to some media time in print or radio or TV, although that's sort of hit-and-miss. It's a nice way to meet up with your readers. I just did a signing at the Royal Oak Barnes & Noble and the first person to buy my book was somebody who had bought my other two a month ago at my signing in Ann Arbor at Aunt Agatha's. I don't know if he came specifically for that, but I definitely appreciated that kind of interest in my books. Otherwise, well, Writers Penance.

Hey, tell me more about your online activities. I did a blog tour (still sort of ongoing, although more low-keyed) and I'd highly recommend it. But you've got something cool going on.

Steve: I'm all for building relationships with booksellers, but the problem with book signings is, they're extremely inefficient. How far did you have to drive to conduct your last signing? To build a relationship with a couple of bookstore employees? Who might not be working there three months from now, or remember your name next week? An autograph certainly adds value to a book, and if you're passing through town, by all means stop at the bookstores and sign stock. But should you make a road trip specifically for that purpose?

Joe Konrath is my hero and guru. He stands on a pedestal. But he's speaking out of both sides of his mouth. On one hand he argues, brilliantly, that the publishing world is transforming. It's going digital, and the curve is about to exponentiate. Publishers need to wipe the pigeon shit out of their eyes. The dogmas of the past are no longer valid, if they ever were. Out of the other side of his mouth he continues to urge writers to pound ground and grip-and-grin in the same old pre-internet ways they were limited to in pre-internet times. When you have the theoretical capability of reaching millions of people without getting up from your desk, why would you spend a day driving across the state to reach a handful?

We need to focus on more efficient ways to reach readers. I've been looking at press release services, for example, and I can't find one geared for writers. They all want to know whether I'm targeting the African American community, for instance, or high income families. Jews. Scuba divers. You name it. We need press release and newsletter services that target readers, book clubs, and the like. We need to use Skype and video conferencing to speak to groups more efficiently. We need to direct our energy in ways that capitalize on the technology available to us, and if necessary we need to develop those ways ourselves. Wouldn't that make our publishers happy?

Mark: I think sales would make them happy and seeing that you’re invested in marketing somehow. My publishers pushed book signings, but I’m sure they’d be pleased if I came up with something else creative to find a tipping point. The other problem I see with book signings in general has to do with the actual number of bookstores in the U.S., which is a number that’s sort of hard to come by. Supposedly there are fewer than 2,000 independent bookstores, about 517 Borders stores, and about 777 Barnes & Nobles. So throw in probably less than a thousand more, let’s estimate there are maybe 4,000 bookstores in the U.S. Although I know Joe Konrath visited about 1,200 of them, I can’t think of very many other authors who, even on an ambitious tour, hit more than a hundred or so. And I know that just hitting a dozen can be pretty time consuming and exhausting. And I’m not sure how doing 12 signings really creates a bump in your national presence. We need to start local and hope word-of-mouth spreads, but you’re right, the Internet gives us a wider reach for a lot less time and energy. I thought my blog tour was far more effective than the book signings and a lot less tiring.

Steve: Joe has the personality to do what Joe does. Few of the rest of us share his talents. I'm perfectly comfortable speaking in public, in fact I enjoy it. But I've seen my share of fellow speakers sitting next to me on or off stage, waiting their turn, frightened so badly they're shaking. I wouldn't advise such people to speak on behalf of their books. For my own part, I don't have the personality to cold-approach customers in a book store, as Joe is so effective at doing. If I didn't know him I'd make a wide circle to avoid him, just as I do for the people who try to get me to sample cheese or whatever in the grocery store. Book signings may be right for some people, and it's probably right for everybody if they stick to their local communities (because there's no travel expense involved; my beef is not about the activity, rather its efficiency). But I don't think it should be automatically assumed that the author is going to incorporate them in his or her marketing plan.

I'm an amateur winemaker. Suppose I wanted to market my wine nationally (forget the plethora of legal obstacles). Spending my afternoons in liquor stores, trying to get the guy who came in to buy a bottle of tequila to buy my Riesling instead, would be just about the dumbest approach I could take. Yet that's what's routinely expected of authors. I live in Germany; someone in Austin Texas has suggested that if I don't travel there to do a book signing he'd set up for me then I'll be "blowing a precious opportunity." The public, and most of the writing community, it seems, has the notion that book signings are simply the thing to do, regardless of whether they're effective or efficient.

I'm going to try some online schemes in the coming weeks and months. One of them, an armchair treasure hunt tied to my novel, is already underway. I'll come back to let you know how things turned out. I've got a couple of local events set up as well, and you probably won't have to pry a report out of me about those.

Mark: At least you’d get to drink your wine. I agree with you totally about Joe, by the way (Hi, Joe!). What works for him doesn’t necessarily work for the rest of us poor schlubs. But I’m still speechlessly trying to come to grips with the fact that Joe’s your hero and guru. Aside from that break with sanity, I think you’re on the right track and I think your treasure hunt will catch on and you’ll sell a few million books. I’m sure that would make both you and your publisher. happy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

When Cindy Pon's book got published, I suggested she go over and join - they do pretty cool and seemingly little-effort author pages. What do y'all think about a marketing method of that type?

3:09 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I don't think it will hurt. Everything you do becomes a piece of the marketing pie. Probably the biggest mistake we make is thinking that any one thing will be the silver bullet. Short of ending up on a national morning news program like Good Morning, America, or Oprah, or becoming (or already being) a celebrity, we're chipping away at the public (or trying to drain the ocean one spoonful at a time)

4:31 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I've been looking at press release services, for example, and I can't find one geared for writers.

Have you checked out M.J. Rose's Authorbuzz?

6:51 PM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

I just signed up for Goodreads. I hope it makes more sense than Twitter.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

MJ Rose doesn't run a press release service.

4:07 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I've discussed my experiences with AuthorBuzz with Stephen, but I suggest you and I discuss it offline if you're thinking about it.

I'm not going to go into any particular detail about it here, but there are 2 points everybody should consider before investing in it. First, it costs about $1000 and I think she's claiming numbers of about 300,000 or so. But you have to remember that in any kind of direct marketing campaign, a 1-2% response rate is typical (and sometimes optimistic). And that doesn't mean that 1-2% will see your ad and buy the book, it means 1-2% will look at it and it will register on them. So 3,000 maybe.

The second point is to look at your overall marketing budget, such as it is. If you have $10,000 or $20,000 to spend on book marketing (can I borrow some money?), then it's probably a reasonable thing to spend your money on. My experience and gut feeling is that if you have limited resources you're better off doing a little bit of everything, rather than sinking all your budget into one thing.

5:04 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I experimented with Twitter for both my novels and last year's publishing venture. It might have been OK for the publishing venture, it drove some traffic to my website. I sort of hate Twitter, though. It seems to me that the people who are making it work starting from the ground up (versus being famous and starting to tweet) are people that use TweetDeck or something similar and when they tweet whatever they're tweeting automatically gets disseminated to their Facebook page, their Myspace page, their Crimespace page, to their blog, their Amazon blog,their PLaxo, LinkedUp, GroupSexGroup page, etc. I wasn't interested enough to work at it.

5:07 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

Obviously with electronic releases, I can't have signings. So that's out. My partner is a guru at promotions, so I'm sure we'll come up with some fun stuff for the next release.

6:51 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...


But I wonder how many signings I would have to do for my book to register with 3000 people. $1000 seems like a bargain to me. If it resulted in 1000 sales, it would be well worth it IMO.

6:55 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Jude, in my experience, 1,000 SALES from AuthorBuzz is stratospherically optimistic. Both times I used it I had maybe 200 or 300 extra hits on my website and we couldn't identify a bump in sales from them.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hmm. Well, if reaching that targeted audience in such huge numbers doesn't have an effect, I guess we have to ask ourselves if self-promotion is even worth the effort.

Konrath tried everything during his Hyperion years, and still never managed to get on any bestseller lists. That's after six books with a big house. So can an author really do anything to cause a meaningful increase in sales? I'm willing to spend some time and money, but I would hate to waste much of either.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Define "meaningful."

2:05 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

We obviously cannot self-promote ourselves onto the NYT bestseller list. If that were possible, Joe Konrath would have done it. So, really, "meaningful" represents a number that's going to differ from author to author. For example, 1000 copies sold for $1000 spent on self-promotion would be meaningful to me. Some authors might find that woefully inefficient, but we have to factor word-of-mouth into the equation. That's the best advertisement of all, but the ball has to get rolling somehow.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm not willing to go into detail online about my thoughts and experiences about this except to say that in my experience a 1 to 1 ratio of marketing dollars to dollars earned is unlikely. Maybe someday. I'd be willing to talk about it.

I'm going to plan on writing next week a post about all the different types of marketing things I've done and my experiences with them.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Richmond Writer said...

So Mark you weren't starting a GroupSexGroup page? lol

Last night I went to a show where they had an editor on the panel. She suggested Goodreads and several other places online to promote your book. Most important thing to remember is that your first audience is generally writers and if you've been on Goodreads (or the other ones) for a while and made connections these people will spread the word.

4:36 PM  

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